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Behind Our Obsession With Cutaways, The Oldest Form Of Information Design

In a new book, data designers Juan and Samuel Velasco investigate why the artform holds such enduring appeal.

The field of information design is driven by a desire to investigate concepts visually. Data journalists examine the facts, peering underneath the hood of a story to explore the data behind it and expose its inner workings clearly and compellingly. Nowhere is this impulse to dissect a topic or idea quite so literal as in cutaway illustrations–arguably the earliest form of information design.

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As brothers Juan and Samuel Velasco detail in their new book, Look Inside: Cutaway Illustrations and Visual Storytelling, the first cutaway illustrations are thought to be the 28,000-year-old cave paintings found in a region of Australia called Arnhem Land. The ancient paintings found there are often described as “X-ray” images, for their illustrations of internal anatomy. Since then, cutaways have held a significant place in the history of both art and science, from the finely detailed drawings of Leonardo da Vinci to Renaissance-era woodcut diagrams and the famed medical illustrations of 19th century French physician Jean-Baptiste Marc Bourgery. And they’ve endured into the present day, as infographics and data journalists have become mainstays at every major publication.

Bryan Christie/New York Times Magazine, 2009; Effects of Jogging on the Brain.

Cutaways and their combination of extreme detail and often impressive artistry are still a powerful method of visualizing information, according to the Velasco brothers, who together run the information design firm 5W Infographics. Part of the cutaway’s enduring appeal, they say, is our natural curiosity about how things work and their interior functions. Even though modern technologies like photography and interactives allow designers to explain things visually in new ways, the age-old art of illustration can still be the best method for revealing the hidden mechanisms of opaque or complicated concepts.

“There are many ways of telling a story visually,” says Juan, who as a data journalist has worked for the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, as well as in the art departments of the New York Times and National Geographic. Of course, for stories that revolve around data and statistics, charts and more sophisticated types of data visualization are often the most precise ways of displaying information. But to explain what’s inside the International Space Station, for instance, or for a piece on the skeleton of a neanderthal, there’s often no better way forward than the age-old cutaway—even for a publication with such a prestigious photo department as the National Geographic. “You cannot photograph the inside of a machine in the same ways you can with an illustrations,” says Juan.

Robert T. McCall/National Geographic.

For Samuel, who got his start in graphic design but fell into a career in visual journalism working for publications like El Mundo and Fortune, one of the most interesting things to arise out of the pair’s research for the book was the sheer artistry that went into many of the illustrations featured. At a publication, where infographics are used to explain news events, accuracy and detail are often the most prized elements of information design. But cutaways like the sandwich cross-sections of photographer Jon Chonko (brilliantly named “scanwiches”) or artist Bryan Christie’s 3D computer-generated images of male and female bodies in action are as beautiful as they are informative. Christie’s ghostly renderings, which have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, give a softer touch to anatomical drawings that are often cold and scientific.

Jon Chonko, Scanwiches.

The Canadian artist and musician Raymond Biesinger takes the artistry in cutaways a step further, distancing his work from the realism and accuracy to which conventional cutaways are beholden. His illustrations are abstract collages—ranging from cutaways of feline anatomy to a diagram of air travel—that are derived from scans of real life objects like toys or album covers, which serve to give the digital images a level of texture and imperfection.

The Velascos predict that the cutaway will continue to appeal to humans, satiating our curiosity for seeing the unseen. Yet as their book reveals, the field won’t stagnate; artists continue to innovate with this form of art and information design that has been around since the Middle Ages, in ways that continue to surprise and delight.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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